How technology is challenging traditional leadership
One of the biggest challenges for leaders during the pandemic has been to adapt to virtual meetings. Leaders who have previously excelled in their career because of their ability to get people into a room and unite them around an idea, decision or outcome have rapidly needed to learn how to be effective in virtual settings. While in the past it has been the most confident person with the loudest voice in the room who exerted the most influence, it is now the most tech-savvy person with the best microphone, lighting and broadband.
Until recently, traditional leaders could get away with poor digital meeting skills. When virtual collaboration failed, they could demand from their team to revert back to face-to-face meetings. This option, however, has mostly been off the table for the past year. What’s more, the shift to virtual meetings has also changed some of the power dynamics between leaders and their teams, i.e. on screen leaders can’t solely rely on the trappings of status anymore. They can’t call people into their big office and intimidate them. Microsoft Teams or Zoom is a much more level playing field.
Consequently, everyone who had developed some skills in setting up, coordinating and running physical meetings has had to ask themselves: How do I need to adapt to these changed conditions? How can I achieve the goals of my company via Zoom meetings? How can apps such as Beekeeper or Slack be used for effective decision-making? How you answer these questions at a company level is eminently important. The cost of bad decision-making can be tremendous. Still, there is no function in most organizations that is tasked with solving these questions strategically and holistically for everyone. Of course, procurement is in charge of purchasing enough software licenses, IT is concerned with setting up the technology solution and HR focuses on the people, but there is no single function dedicated to reimagining and redesigning the intersection between technology and the organizational culture that ultimately produces the company’s decisions. Two aspects are hereby key: how decisions are made, and how fast they are made.
In terms of speeding up the decision-making process, I recommend reading Jeff Bezos’ Letter to Shareholders from 2017 in which he explains how high velocity decision making works at Amazon. His main points are that ‘many decisions are reversible and therefore can be taken faster than you might initially realise.’ Second, he recommends that most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. He argues that if you wait for 90%, in most cases, you are probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognising and correcting bad decisions. If you are good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, he says, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.
Technology can be a powerful aid in helping leaders take better decisions that bring about positive change in an organization. Yet, technology alone does not automatically make a business better. It is the leader who acts with intentionality who does. Before implementing a technology-driven change, a leader should ask: Does the introduction of this new technology create added value for the company? If yes, in what ways does it benefit employees, customers, partners and society at large? What are the primary – intended – as well as the secondary – unintended – consequences of implementing this technological change? This last question is particularly important because more often than not, new technologies come with unintended consequences. A timely example is Facebook: The intended consequence has been to connect billions of people around the world. The unintended consequence is, among other things, that fake news can now be distributed at a global scale, destabilizing democratic opinion-building processes.
The Covid-19 crisis – as bad as it is – offers traditional leaders the unique opportunity to test and change their assumptions about some of the most fundamental aspects of how work gets done. For example, the assumption that people get more done when they are physically together in a group. Just look to the world of games where digital technology is all about remote involvement, drawing people in across living rooms and getting emotional buy-in. As increasingly more work takes place digitally, why not borrow a page from the playbooks of game designers, storytellers and film makers and reimagine how you design your meetings? Digital technology can be a strategic means to shape new behaviours, break down barriers and enable better decision-making, but only when leaders are prepared to challenge their traditional assumptions and embrace human ingenuity.
For leaders who want to engage more deeply with this subject in an academic program there is a new part-time MBA in Digital Leadership at the HWZ University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration in Zurich, Switzerland. Over the course of three semesters it teaches executives how to adapt their leadership style to the digital world. It also provides them with a toolkit of methodologies to create and execute digital change and innovation initiatives in their organisation.
The course is built around two premises. Firstly, that leaders need to treat technological change and cultural change as equal forces that impact their organization. For example, to implement a company-wide data strategy, a leader not only needs to evaluate different data sources and IT solutions, he or she also needs to reduce the organizational silos and foster a more collaborative company culture. The role of the digital leader is less the one of a commander and more the role of a coach. He or she inspires and educates her employees about the technological changes in the organization, connecting and enabling them to make the most of these new data-driven opportunities.
The second premise of the program is that in a digital world demonstrating leadership to your team is more about the questions you ask than about the answers you give. With technology engines like Google providing near perfect answers to just about any and every topic, a leader’s most valuable asset has become a critical mind that asks the right questions at the right time. This, however, means that his or her self-worth is no longer entirely tied to knowledge but rather to how he or she uses questions to direct human and technological resources towards solving the right challenges.
A good leader in the digital world is therefore the person who is the most inquisitive, which is a different set of qualities to the traditional hero leader of the past. Experience remains valuable and useful, but it must not trick a leader into thinking he or she has nothing new to learn. In short, leadership in the digital world is about working out the right questions to ask, to avoid solving the wrong problems really well.